Monday, August 26, 2013

10 Things A Beginning Duck Hunter Must Have

Sunrise in the duck blind - that's why you are doing this
I didn't have a whole lot of guidance when I got into waterfowling 20 years ago, and so in my first few seasons, I wasted money buying things I didn't really need.  In most cases, I bought things that were helpful, but simply weren't necessary.  In other cases, I bought things that were literally useless and a waste of money - and I didn't have much money to spread around.

It's true that some of the most successful hunters I know shoot 30-year old guns and wear blue jeans and frayed brown sweaters in the duck blind.  Getting into the "intangibles" of their success (like hours scouting vs. hours hunting) has been the subject of many, many great books about waterfowling, so I won't belabor the point here.  It'll be part of your learning curve, as it was mine.

Waterfowl hunting is an expensive pursuit, and as the average age (and roughly age-associated disposable income) of American hunters increases, the pursuit is only getting more expensive.  Purchasing "the right gear" can be a new hunter's budget killer if you let the advertising (or pursuit of perfection) lure you in.  Don't do it - but don't do nothing.   To be successful, you're going to need some stuff.  Not all of the stuff.  Just some.  In addition to the intangibles, I've left off notable "things" like "your hunting license" and "permission from the property owner."  This is strictly a gear list, so here you go:

10. Your own shotgun.  This could have been #1 on the list, but I wanted to get it out of the way immediately. Do not borrow a gun as a routine.  You need to know your gun, how it shoots, and very importantly, where the safety is and how to know (by feel and by sight) whether the safety is on or off.   Sounds stupid, right?  Well, I once found my face at the wrong end of a borrowed, loaded 12 gauge as the handler struggled to find the safety in the darkness of the duck blind.   If you don't have religion, you'll find it that day. Let me pause for a deep breath.
The venerable Remington 870 Express - I still shoot mine (purchased in 1996) a few times per year

You need to understand how your gun fits you (even if it fits poorly, take that into consideration when you are preparing to shoulder it and take a wing shot, and after the season's over, take it to the gunsmith to be fitted to you - small money well spent).   Another tip you should know - not all guns shoot all types of ammo the same way.  Seems ridiculous, but it's true.  You'll want to find out which loads (what we call duck ammunition) work with which choke in which gun.  It takes time...and it can't start without you buying your own gun.

Many thousands of ducks have been shot with $250 Mossberg and Remington pump action guns.  Buy one. Budget recommended:  Remington 870 or Mossberg 835 12 gauge, with chokes included, both about $325.

9.  Gun oil. And not WD-40.  If you don't own gun oil, you don't take your gun, or your hunting, seriously.  Buy some.  Even the expensive oil costs just $19.00.  Clean that damn gun.  Especially if it's a cheap gun. WD-40 is not gun oil.  Real gun oil either says "Gun Oil" or contains the word "gun/firearm" PLUS the acronym "CLP" (clean, lubricate, protect).    Budget recommended:  Your gun manufacturer's gun oil, usually $5.00.  Currently under evaluation by 'me' : Frog Lube CLP ($20).

8.  A good folding knife.  This does not mean a $300 knife.  Your knife will need to serve many purposes - dressing birds, working as a screwdriver, use for gun repair, cutting brush, and cutting decoy line.   Some will get dull, others will break, others will chip.  I don't have 3000 hours to spend researching the perfect blend of steel alloys for a hunting knife, and you probably don't either.  Spend $35-60 on a decent knife.  If it lasts and it feels right in your hand, buy a back-up.  Budget recommended:   CRKT Tanto ($40), Buck Parallax ($25), Kershaw Kuro ($40).  All are solid knives, and you won't cry when you break them or they rust shut after being left in your waders.  Oh, you laugh now....but you'll see.

7. A serviceable duck or goose call.  A $20 duck and/or goose call will get you farther than you think, although like all bird calls, they can cause a lot of problems too.   You will be humbled on the day that your well-practiced call sequence causes decoying birds to literally stop and fly in the opposite direction....away from you.  Ahh, memories.  You're not going to call in a flock of 60 birds with a $20 Primos call, but on a foggy morning, you absolutely might earn a return visit from a single, lost bird who just flew past your spread and only needs to get five yards closer to be within range.  Budget recommended:  Primos Timber Wench, $18-22.

6.  Camo, brown or black PFD.   If you hunt in a boat in more than three feet of water, you need to leave your PFD on at all times.    And if you buy a colorful PFD, you are going to convince yourself not to wear it because ducks will see it.   If you can afford it, purchase a black, low profile inflatable PFD ($100-200). Budget recommended: MTI PFDs, $55-90.

5. 6-10 decoys.  Know your area.  Know what ducks or geese are really there.  And - for now -  buy only as many decoys as you can reasonably, quietly carry to your hunting spot.   Budget recommended:  4 pack BPS Redhead Canada Goose floaters, $79 ; 6 pack weighted keel Avery Greenhead Gear duck decoys (pick your species or a mixed pack), about $40-50. Note: Yes I know that better decoys exist. They all cost more money, too. 

4. Smart phone / emergency radio / 2-way radio.  Choice is up to you on this one, but having been out on the water in a sudden white-out in late January, it's more than just "helpful" to have access to weather and marine forecasts or to be able to broadcast your location to "someone" on the other end of the airwaves.  How wrong you can afford to be (and how much you should spend) depends on whether you're hunting on a farm pond 1000' from a hard road, or on an island 4 miles from fast land.   Cost:  Up to you.

3.  Flashlight / headlamp.  Hunters have a wide range of opinions on what's best for the job, and the range is almost comical.  Some hunters prefer $5 clip-on LED lamps that fit on a ball cap brim (a great place to start), while others want a 65 million candlepower hand-held light to make sure the boat doesn't hit a stump at 15mph.   I've owned many headlamps and many flashlights and I'm not yet sure I've found the "one size fits all" solution.  I'm currently using the Black Diamond ReVolt (100 lumens, $70).

2. Bird and wing identification book or pamphlet.  Can't overemphasize this one.  If you haven't been around ducks on the wing, the learning curve can be difficult, and a hunter using strong ethics will avoid taking shots on birds that he or she has not identified prior to shooting.   This is especially tough outside of the best hunting areas, because the majority of shots will be in low light conditions.  Hold your fire, let them land, and figure out what they are.  Hopefully the first flock will help decoy in a few more.  Budget recommended:  the gold standard for 30 years was the free USFWS guide "Ducks at a Distance," but it is out of print.  You can still download the pdf sections here and store them on your smart phone, if you're so inclined.

1. Waterproof waders or boots.  It would take a phenomenal idiot to attempt waterfowl hunting, even in a winter corn field, without waterproof boots.  Yet, it happens every year.  No matter what boots or waders I wear to a hunt, I usually end up pushing them to their maximum depth or other tolerance either due to standing in water to repair boats, setting and retrieving decoys, and retrieving downed birds when the dogs refuse to do it.  A lot of times, cheap is good.  But being cold, or possibly losing a toe to frostbite, doesn't pay well either.  Suck it up and buy at least two of the following three:  a good ($100-150) pair of insulated rubber knee boots, a good ($80-150) pair of thigh waders or wading pants, and/or a good ($150-300) pair of insulated chest waders.   Personally, I wear (and am quite happy with) Cabela's LightMag Waders ($169) and LaCrosse AlphaLite Mud Boots (reviewed by me here) ($80-130, depending on your size).

I hope you, the new hunter, has found this list to be helpful.  At least as of the time of writing this, I'm on the payroll of none of the companies or products I've described above, and as a beginner, you'll do fine with all of them.  The important things are twofold: to have your bases covered, and to remind yourself, on that frosty January morning when the alarm goes off at 3:15am, you "can't kill 'em from the couch."  Get out there and try it!

Killed over five decoys while I was hiding behind a stump on the shoreline, last week of goose season 2012-2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book of Excuses, Summer 2013 Edition

My blogging has really dropped a bit over this summer, and there's a variety of reasons for that.  First and foremost, my time afield has really been cut back due to some home repair urgencies, although getting my garden and irrigation system up and running this spring/summer also ate quite a bit of time.   Some general happenings:

The Rats:  My new garden is great, and productive.  And full of raccoons (fenced out), squirrels (can't harass until hunting season), birds (can't harass, period), and rats.  I've been aggressively trapping rats for about a month now, and I've killed almost 40.  It's actually been a neat experiment.  The remaining rats (too old and smart to be trapped) are avoiding my garden like the plague, so in a way......mission accomplished.

The Gun Law:   On October 1, Maryland will enact one of the nation's most aggressive and sweeping gun control laws in the United States.  In a very general sense, and like most blue state gun owners, I am preparing for October 1 in a way that will ensure that I am fully compliant with the new state law (which generally only affects new purchases of handguns and Scary Black Guns).  

The Career:  I am working on a couple of fronts to bolster my skills in the realm of "expanding  my impact."   A few efforts seem ready to publicly move forward in the next month, so I look forward to telling you about those, when and if they materialize.   This effort, in itself, represents some personal growth because I am sometimes an impatient person and these types of processes are front loaded with one's own effort and investment of time and relationship capital, often (I'm finding) months before any movement seems to take place.

The Weather:  It has been the wettest summer on record, and the fishing is hit or miss.  It's been several years since I've been skunked so often.  I think it's been a month since my last outing, which is unheard of for me, certainly in the summer. I mean seriously, it rains every 60 hours.  This doesn't deserve a picture.  Boo rain.

The Job:  When I took my current job two years ago, my (now) boss had in mind the completion of three major wetland projects which were tied up in funding and permit processes.   Two of the three are complete, and the third one just received a key permit that will allow us to move forward with construction soon.  Final negotiations, easements and other details are being hashed out, which is unnerving...but....good.  I think.  It has the potential to be the largest construction budget I've ever managed. And shut up, the hard hat over the wool cap is totes OSHA compliant.  I read it on the internet.

The Deck:   So, my wife says to me, "Do you think we should expand the deck?"

The Boy:  Being the Dad of a mega-active little boy is the best.  And exhausting.  Every day.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Gear Review: Carlisle Expedition Angler Full Fiberglass Paddle

Kayak anglers much more dedicated than me will tell you that if you don't have money for a good paddle and a good boat, get the good paddle and a cheap boat.   Now, I love a good deal, and I hate a brand name that's just selling me a brand name.  That being said,  my favorite paddles I've ever used have also been the most expensive and have been constructed by "the best brand names" in the industry.   Their common features:  fiberglass blades, adjustable ferrules, carbon or fiberglass handles, and well-tuned overall paddle stiffness.  Adding these features together normally nets a paddle that costs between $275 and $450.
Since I usually paddle less than 20 times per  year, and since I juggle a half-dozen other outdoor activities, it just seems ridiculous to spend that kind of money on a good paddle.  I kept thinking, "Why in the world can't someone make a fiberglass paddle for less than $200?  Well it turns out, Carlisle Paddles actually has - The Carlisle Expedition (retail $159, frequently found cheaper).   Having only used low-end Carlisle paddles in the past, I was pretty skeptical about this model, which came out in 2012.  But the only reviews I found online were positive, and I found a deal on an internet auction website, and so I took the plunge.  After four outings with the paddle, here's what I found:

Construction/Appearance:  Handles are a fairly standard fiberglass mix, likely machine molded and sanded, and are extremely light.  Handles are also molded (I suspect) fiberglass, with a reinforced lower third.  The "Angler" model features a nifty paint job - flat black shaft and flat olive drab blades.  It should be noted, however, that the olive drab blades do indeed shine and reflect light once they are wet.

The paint does a handy job of hiding manufacturing blemishes that one might not expect to find on a $300 fiberglass paddle, but are pretty likely to exist on a similar $150 paddle.  The $300 paddle, of course, has fiberglass work so fine that it's transparent.  Nonetheless, the glass work appears to be pretty solid - mine has come into contact with rip rap, concrete, and oyster shells and shows some very minor chipping, which is absolutely to be expected. Grade:  B

Ergonomics:   Carlisle's web page doesn't list the shaft diameter, but it seems like it's between a typical standard shaft size and a small diameter shaft size. I have big hands, so this is a little weird.  Not a deal breaker.   The paddle's low weight (2.75lb) would normally make it a winner on its own merit, however, this weight is important because of the stiffness of the Expedition paddle.   A heavier paddle at this stiffness would wear down a paddler's arms quickly.  Grade: B

Performance:    This is a light, stiff paddle that will move aggressive paddlers across the water quickly.  I tried to make it flutter at  high speed, and only at my highest level abuse would flutter occur.  This paddle digs and digs, no joke.    I'm not sure if I would recommend it to low angler paddlers. Grade: A

Overall:  As far as kayak paddles go, the Expedition Angler is squarely in the middle.  And honestly, the paddle's performance shows it.  No one will mistake this paddle for the Werner Corryvrecken in carbon fiber,  nor will anyone mistake it for a $45 plastic or plastic/aluminum paddle from a sports superstore.  The paddle represents a step up for my paddling, at a price I could afford, which is really what gear shopping should be about.  Grade: B+

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...